Technologies of Narcissism: The Printing Press to Facebook

Written by Rachel Armamentos.

In a 2005 commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, a story of only two sentences in length was told. Although concise and simple, this story and the speech that followed made an impact on the audience in attendance, as well as to audiences today. The story describes two young fish who swim past an older fish who says to them, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The young fish keep swimming until one pauses to ask the other one what water is. In the same way that the fish are not aware of what their environment is (much less possess the ability to form an opinion on the state of said environment), societies throughout history have not been aware of the state of their environment and the effects that technology has on its whole environmental ecosystem. As this very theme of technological ignorance can surely be studied through an incalculable amount of cases throughout varying societies, in this paper I argue that the presence of narcissism in today’s social media inundated society can be better understood when paralleled with the sixteenth century shift from scribal to print culture.

Due to the overwhelming and demanding nature of the current social media landscape our society chooses to habituate under and within, our present narcissism has proliferated into an inescapable epidemic. It is only inescapable, however, so long as our society remains unaware—or worse, aware but apathetic—of the effects of the technological society they partake in. Once its members become conscious of and genuinely concerned with the effects of the invasion of technology on its total environment, society will then be able to adequately discern its involvement with the media itself.

Elizabeth Eisenstein, author of The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, was the first to consider the effects of the printing press on the culture it impeded upon. [1] Eisenstein held a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Radcliffe College. Furthermore, she has credibility with several books written on the subject of cultural change in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Before her passing in 2016, Eisenstein held many different positions as professor in varying colleges and universities, including professor emerita at the University of Michigan. [2] In her book The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Eisenstein illustrates the shift of the medium from script to print as well as the shift of the entire culture through deep analysis of the emergence of the printing press in the advent of print culture. Being the first to recognize the shift, Eisenstein also considers the significance of following interactions on historical societies, especially on Western Christendom. Eisenstein argues “that the printing press revolutionized Western Europe by fostering the Reformation and the growth of modern science.” [3] Certainly, the shift altered a great deal in the time and following, and with Eisenstein’s work, this reordering is recognized as such.

The issue of present narcissism today is contingent upon a foundation of the rise of personal celebrity in the shift from scribal to print culture. Elizabeth Eisenstein expertly explains the revolutionizing effects of the emergence of the printing press, namely the ways in which the sixteenth century man was able to become a personal celebrity. She writes, “The cult of personality was repeatedly undermined by the conditions of scribal culture and was powerfully reinforced after the advent of printing.” [4] Rather than by previous scribal methods, under the printing press works were now fixed, standardized, and able to be mass produced and communicated.

A further cultural change born from the shift is closely linked to the naming power and importance of proximity of name on a work. Eisenstein writes,

As self-serving publicists, early printers issued book lists, circulars, and broadsides. They put in their firm’s name, emblem, and shop address on the front page of their books. Indeed their use of title pages entailed a significant reversal of scribal procedures; they put themselves first. Scribal colophons had come last. They also extended their new promotional techniques to the authors and artists whose work they published, thus contributing to new forms of personal celebrity. [5]

When the printing press first started producing work in the 1450s, it was a shift that society could tangibly recognize. To be able to hold a typesetted printed piece of work in one’s hand was a massive shift—it simply had not been done before. Eisenstein recognizes the importance of the step further—one could now hold a typesetted printed piece of one’s own work in his hand—but its journey did not end there. The capability of the printing press to mass produce meant that these works would reach a much greater audience than it would have in a culture of scribes. This audience would need only to look to the front page of the book in order to learn the name of the author. This recognition alone highlights a major source of the rise of personal celebrity—one that was not available nor possible in the age of scribes.

The aspect of personal celebrity was essentially pioneered in the scribal to print change with Martin Luther as the first celebrity. Starting with his 95 Theses that were immediately reproduced across Germany, Luther’s name was broadened with a myriad of other techniques for the spread and marketing of ideas and image such as an iconic branding through portrait and mass duplication and communication of written works. It is no wonder that Luther became a household name spreading across an entire nation—thanks to the technology of the printing press.

Eisenstein continues with further explanations of fame by revealing characteristics of the scribal and print ages as it intrinsically relates to the rise of personal celebrity:

Personal celebrity is related to printed publicity at present. . . . The ‘drive for fame’ itself may have been affected by print-made immortality. The urge to scribble was manifested in Juvenal’s day as it was in Petrarch’s. The wish to see one’s work in print (fixed forever with one’s name in card files and anthologies) is different from the desire to pen lines that could never be fixed in a permanent form, might be lost forever, altered by the copying, or—if truly memorable, be carried by oral transmission and be assigned ultimately to ‘anon.’ [6]

Before the advent of printing, when works were created by scribes with pen in hand and were literally one-of-a-kind by definition, works were less likely to be preserved in time. This mentality certainly carries over into other works of art at the time, such as images and self-portraits. Eisenstein mentions “the conditions of scribal culture thus held narcissism in check… in the absence of written records, he [the artist] would still lose his identity in the eyes of posterity and become another faceless artisan.” [7]

The culture of the era helps to identify the importance of time and space—and to that extent, reveals what held value. In the scribal age, certainly words and image were of value, but because they were not able to be mass communicated nor preserved, often the single copy of work would remain and die as the single copy. If it did have enough significance to be duplicated, then there is the issue of scribal error. Once the printing press arrived on the scene, however, suddenly there was a sense of standardization, uniformity and fixity. Words became recognizable to their named author; portraits were identified by their human counterpart and their artist.

With this logic, the implication of narcissism as an effect of the printing press and the Internet, namely the medium of social media, can be argued to be from the same essence yet held by different forms. The latter builds from the former. The capability of self-promotion through print parallels the current ability to post the vast faculty of self—thought and image alike—for the world to witness. Aside from obvious differences between the mediums (such as form, rate of author-to-audience interaction and feedback), the possibility of emulated personal fame brought out by the capabilities and characteristics of the technologies are strikingly similar. What the printing press began, social media has completed. Through the power of print, individuals were for the first time able to self-propagate their own words and image. Audiences across vast spaces were subjected to those ideas and images that were recognized by the name of the author himself. Today’s social media gives a platform for individuals to self-promote on a worldwide level. While the medium of print began the possibility of celebrity, today’s social media has perfected that initial possibility—everyone is now a celebrity.

The role of narcissist is inherent to the role of the self-made celebrity. With everyone as celebrity, there are spiritual, psychological and physiological implications. This is a narcissistic society. Marshall McLuhan expounds this idea in a chapter labeled “The Gadget Love: Narcissus as Narcosis” in his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan compares man’s beholding of and therefore becoming like man-made idols in Psalm 115 to the concept of who or what man serves and becomes as an extension in the electronic age. He writes,

To behold, use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it. To listen to radio or read the printed page is to accept these extensions of ourselves into our personal system and to undergo the ‘closure’ or displacement of perception that follows automatically. It is this continuous embrace of our own technology in daily use that puts us in the Narcissus role of subliminal awareness and numbness in relation to these images of ourselves. By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions. An Indian is the servo-mechanism of his canoe, as the cowboy of his horse or the executive of his clock. [8]

The warning is clear. We truly become what we behold. The question is then, what are the implications of becoming what we behold if what we behold are mirage reflections of ourselves?

As we create, embrace, and obsess over technological projections of self today through social media, so also we become servants of self. McLuhan says this is a closed loop of sorts. There are physiological and psychological implications to this technological extension of man and thereby, a dangerous closure of sense.

With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself. . . . It could well be that the successive mechanizations of the various physical organs since the invention of printing have made too violent and superstimulated a social experience for the central nervous system to endure. [9]

Again we see a manifestation of the reality that printing created an initial avenue towards narcissism, while the advent of digital media—namely social media—has actualized the initial potential.

Before print, scribes placed their names at the end of their work. As mentioned previously, at the advent of printing, an author placed his name on the front page of his book. Today, we also meticulously place ourselves in positions of self-perpetuated magnitude. After all, there is significance in the naming of our technologies. It is no coincidence that artifacts of our present culture are named to reflect that which beholds it—ourselves. YouTube literally puts you on the tube. Facebook is both a contact book populated by faces of ourselves and our pseudo friends, as well as a constant, never-ending stream of others’ banal information posted by the very individuals themselves. This stream of information is called a “newsfeed;” the name sneakily denotes banal information as newsworthy. In The Narcissism Epidemic, authors Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell write, “people who are desperate for attention have access to a huge potential audience on the Web, via sites such as YouTube, blogs, newspaper comment boards, and photo-rating sites. All of this encourages narcissism.” [10]

The epistemological method the viewer is subjected to through the mediated source offers a variant reality than the one it actually holds. There is a false relationship propagated by the medium—one that is tailored to make the viewer believe she truly “knows” the figure on the screen. In reality she knows nothing of the embodied person—what she knows is a pixelated mirage and subsequently selected details that have been fed to her. Joshua Meyrowitz, author of No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, explains this idea:

What is unusual about the new mass media . . . is that they offer the illusion of face-to-face interaction with performers and political figures. . . . Horton and Wohl suggest that the new media lead to a new type of relationship which they call ‘para-social interaction.’ They argue that although the relationship is mediated, it psychologically resembles face-to-face interaction. Viewers come to feel they ‘know’ the people they ‘meet’ on television in the same way they know their friends and associates. In fact, many viewers begin to believe that they know and understand a performer better than all the other viewers do. Paradoxically, the para-social performer is able to establish ‘intimacy with millions.’ [11]

At the year of this book’s writing (1985), Western culture was in the height of the televisual age—when viewers first ‘connected’ to the star role through the mediation of the television screen. In today’s culture, which is heavily influenced by and eerily dependent upon social media, we not only experience the illusion of face-to-face interaction with celebrities and social icons as seen in the televisual age, we ourselves become the celebrities—with the help of social media, we make ourselves social icons. With a mediated worldwide reaching platform to place one’s “best self” upon, the social media user is able to instantaneously upload thoughts, ideas, photos and videos—all which are carefully curated and filtered in order to present one’s “best self” (although, ironically, through mediated forms, one’s “best self” is almost never one’s true self).

One’s promoted self on social media is also always up for discussion with every possible viewing audience. Interactive features leave room for other users and viewers to comment on posts, as well as show appreciation or approval, shock or disgust, discontent or anger—each emotion propagated to the one who posted as well as to the world—with the mere click of a button. This feedback loop necessitates the space for powerful psychological feedback with such a minor look at intention of the responder’s intending meaning. It leaves a certain dissonance of intent versus actual effect. Not only does ability to post one’s self to a worldwide audience create the space for unintended meaning in communication, it also creates an almost sure implication of narcissistic tendencies.

As opposed to fully embodied and real face-to-face communication, social media connectivity lacks the same risk of authenticity in vulnerability as seen in face-to-face friendships. If a person, logged into her social media account, looks down onto the small illuminated screen to find a list of notifications that inform her of the other users who have recently affirmed their “likes” of her newly uploaded profile photo, said person will almost certainly feel a moment of appreciation. However, although she is truly experiencing the emotion of appreciation, it is a sort of pseudo-appreciation in comparison to the emotional level she would have experienced had the connection to her friends been face-to-face. By eliminating the element of space from her continuum, she is promulgating a different reality one that is grounded in space rather than in time. Instead of experiencing the risk of genuine in-person positive or negative feedback in real time—that which is uncertain, she has chosen to interact with the certain, the “likes,” rather than the uncertain, the genuine human emotional feedback. The impending danger is not only ignorance, but apathy. To believe that what matters is the way in which a technology is used—for its functions for better or for worse—is to maintain “the numb stance of a technological idiot.” [12] This, McLuhan writes, is “our conventional response to all media.” [13]

To ward off the stance of a technological idiot, society must become aware of the present and lasting effects of the media, which we behold so extravagantly. However, this is no simple task. Because it is society’s conventional response to all media, it is also with great difficulty that this perception change will happen. Jacques Ellul writes of this plight of ecologists in his critique of technique in The Technological Bluff:

A final factor is that the advantages are concrete but the disadvantages are usually abstract. Motorcyclists take pleasure in their engines and the pleasure is doubled if they make the maximum noise. But there is now increasing alertness to the great danger that noise presents to our society, affecting hearing, the heart, and the nerves. Noise is regarded as one of our greatest scourges, but in spite of its confirmed effects, which are precise and concrete, the danger seems to be an abstract one to the public. The same applies to the dangers of television. These are obvious examples. In many cases, however, the danger is not apparent at all (and this is one of the inevitable setbacks to serious ecologists)—it comes to light only after long arguments, by means of a specific method that must be used to present to the public problems that they do not understand, in studies that demand a certain competence. This is why the public can have no awareness of the negative effects of technique. [14]

Unlike the two fish who were not aware of their environment in Wallace’s commencement speech, society must be aware of and concerned with their environment and the effects of technology, regardless of how difficult perception change is to achieve. Ellul writes,

But this must not lead the reader to say to himself: ‘All right, here is some information on the problem, and other sociologists, economists, philosophers, and theologians will carry on the work, so I have simply got to wait.’ This will not do, for the challenge is not to scholars and university professors, but to all of us. At stake is our very life, and we shall need all the energy, inventiveness, imagination, goodness, and strength we can muster to triumph in our predicament. . . . Each man must make this effort in every area of life, in his profession and in his social, religious, and family relationships. [15]

In the midst of banality, it is of the utmost necessity for members of society to become cognizant of the intrusive impact that technologies have on surrounding society—its full environment and culture included. Due to the clear implications of narcissistic features in today’s social media inundated society, the facet of personal celebrity can be illustrated by the initial rise of celebrity in the scribal to print shift as seen in the sixteenth century.



[1] Smith, H. (2016, February 24). “Elizabeth Eisenstein, Printing Press Historian and Tennis Star, Dies at 92.” Retrieved October 16, 2017, from ar-dies-%20at-92/2016/02/23/5a6342a6-da47-11e5-925f-1d10062cc82d_story.html%20utm_term=.c466b 84e12b2


[3] Meyrowitz, J. (1985). No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (p. 18)

[4] Eisenstein, E. L. (2000). The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (p. 146)

[5] ibid (p. 33)

[6] ibid (p. 94-95)

[7] ibid (p. 147-148)

[8] McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (p. 46)

[9] ibid (p. 43)

[10] Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2013). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York: Atria paperback. (p. 22)

[11] Meyrowitz, J. (1985). No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (p. 119)

[12] McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (p. 18)

[13] ibid (p. 18)

[14] Ellul, J., & Bromiley, G. (1990). The Technological Bluff. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. (p. 75)

[15] Ellul, J. (1964). The Technological Society. Toronto, ON: Random House. (p. xxxii)


Works Cited

Bauerlein, M. (2011). The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Eisenstein, E. L. (2000). The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellul, J., & Bromiley, G. (1990). The Technological Bluff. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. (p. 75)

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (p. 45)

Meyrowitz, J. (1985). No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (p. 18)

Pettegree, A. (2016). Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation. New York, NY: Penguin.

Smith, H. (2016, February 24). “Elizabeth Eisenstein, Printing Press Historian and Tennis Star, Dies at 92.” Retrieved October 16, 2017, from

Soraya Mehdizadeh, S. (2010). “Self-Presentation 2.0: Narcissism and Self-Esteem on Facebook.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13(4). Retrieved October 16, 2017.

The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead. (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2017, from

Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2013). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York: Atria Paperback. (p. 22)

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  1. howard wetzel says:

    The narcissism of print was part of the formal cause of the artifact of private identity. That somewhat tempered the reactivity of social responses; the majority were not literate, responses unfolded much more slowly, and it took much longer for ideas to circulate to form a public consensus. In contrast, the narcissism of digital technology reacts instantly, quickly assembles what at least passes for a powerful, if often abusive, consensus. But more importantly, the needful presuure to participate in the moment by an essentially discarnate audience creates the very different artifact of corporate identity, which may be a civil consensus, or a raving irrational crowd. This is not an either / or comparison, but a relative description between two poles. The McLuhans’ point was that literacy seems to inoculate indivuals against becoming a tribal mob; digital technologies in a post-literate era, with only rudimentary literacy and critical thinking skills in the mix for most, do not.

  2. Celebrity or notoriety born of virtual technology is not necessarily a bad thing. The “age of imprimatur” has solidified our evolutionary foundations, for better and worse. The Bible was, and remains, the largest selling printed tome. Hence, we could argue that Jesus was history’s central narcissist. And therein is the essay’s fallacy.

    Virtual communication provides a spectrum of positive and negative outcomes, from radiant examples of virtue, community, brotherhood, compassion, empathy, and love; to dark anachronistic ideas of human separation and tribalism – and everything imaginable in between. The “drive for fame” certainly tends towards our darker nature, but does not (as the author suggests) describe the vastly broader moral history of virtual communication (books, etc.).

    The author writes, “we truly become what we behold.” A corollary saying is “we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.” And this is the author’s core problem. She is writing from clearly limited and academic experience of the human condition. Another old saying is, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Which is to say, when your references are rooted in McLuhan and Ellul, virtual technologies can become quite sinister at their root.

    The tone of this essay suggests that everyone engaging with virtual communication is somehow tainted with narcissism, subject to its snare. This manner of black and white writing often works for a religious audience (e.g., you’re either “in” or your “out”), but misses the vast shades of gray required for rigorous public debate.

    The author uses David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech as an opening and closing element. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t heard this speech to hop over to YouTube and experience its profound brilliance. On that, we agree.

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